THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Gulf spill site becomes an underwater crime scene

BP to gather evidence for investigators

By Jeffrey Collins
Associated Press / August 7, 2010

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NEW ORLEANS — Now that BP appears to have vanquished its ruptured well, authorities are turning their attention to gathering evidence from what could amount to a crime scene at the bottom of the sea.

The wreckage — including the failed blowout preventer and the blackened, twisted remnants of the drilling platform — may be Exhibit A in the effort to establish who is responsible for the biggest peacetime oil spill in history. And the very companies under investigation will be in charge of recovering the evidence.

Hundreds of investigators cannot wait to get their hands on evidence. The FBI is conducting a criminal investigation, the Coast Guard is seeking the cause of the blast, and lawyers are pursuing millions of dollars in damages for the families of the 11 workers killed, the dozens injured, and the thousands whose livelihoods have been damaged.

“The items at the bottom of the sea are a big deal for everybody,’’ said Stephen Herman, a New Orleans lawyer representing injured rig workers and others.

BP will surely want a look at the items, particularly if it tries to shift responsibility for the disaster onto other companies, such as Transocean, which owned the oil platform; Halliburton, which supplied the crew that was cementing the well; and Cameron International, maker of the blowout preventer.

BP and Transocean — which could face heavy penalties if found to be at fault — have said they will raise some of the wreckage if it can be done without doing more damage to the oil well. That would give the two companies responsibility for gathering up the very evidence that could be used against them.

But the federal government has said it simply does not have the knowhow and the deep-sea equipment that the drilling industry has. And it said the operation will be closely supervised by the Coast Guard.

BP this week plugged up the top of the blown-out well with mud and then sealed it with cement. BP senior vice president Kent Wells said crews plan to resume drilling tomorrow night on a relief well more than 2 miles below the seafloor that will be used to inject mud and cement just above the source of the oil, sealing off the well from the bottom, too. The two wells should link between Aug. 13 and Aug. 15, Wells said.

In other developments yesterday, BP said it might drill again someday into the same reservoir of oil, which is still believed to hold nearly $4 billion worth of crude. That prospect is unlikely to sit well with Gulf Coast residents furious at the oil giant.

“There’s lots of oil and gas here,’’ said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer. “We’re going to have to think about what to do with that at some point.’’ With the company and its partners facing tens of billions of dollars in liabilities, the incentive to exploit the reservoir could grow.

Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the government’s point man on the spill, said he had no information on BP’s future plans.

Investigations of the disaster began immediately after the rig blew up on April 20. The government alone is conducting about a dozen, including several congressional investigations, criminal and civil probes by the Justice Department, and an examination by an expert panel convened by President Obama.

Officials want to find out not only the cause of the explosion, but also how oil drilling a mile or more below the surface can be made safer.

A final outcome could be years away, said David Uhlmann, former chief of the Justice Department’s environmental crimes team.

“Normally an investigation of a case this complicated would take two to three years. This is not a normal case,’’ he said.

Any items brought up from the seafloor will be photographed and preserved. Investigators for the government, BP, and others will try to come up with testing procedures acceptable to all sides.

The blowout preventer will probably make it to the surface. The 300-ton mechanism is designed to be placed on a well and brought back to the surface for reuse. It was supposed to be the final line of defense against a catastrophic spill, but BP documents obtained by a congressional committee showed the device had a significant hydraulic leak and a dead or low battery.

“That piece of equipment will tell us whether the blowout preventer had a design defect or whether it was mechanical or human error that caused this disaster,’’ Herman said.

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